The IRS’s Liberal Dragnet
What was it like to be ensnared by their project to target conservative groups?


Andrew Stiles

Kevin Kookogey had reason to be skeptical when he heard a senior IRS official say the agency’s inappropriate targeting of conservative organizations — such as groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their names — had been orchestrated by a few “front-line people” in the agency’s Cincinnati office.

Kookogey’s organization, Linchpins of Liberty, is one of several groups still awaiting approval of their applications for tax-exempt status after more than three years. Linchpins, a conservative mentoring program for high-school and college students, has received extensive and intrusive requests for information about the organization. Unlike most of the groups targeted, however, Linchpins of Liberty was seeking status as a 501(c)(3) educational non-profit, as opposed to a more overtly political 501(c)(4) “social welfare” group, and had no direct “tea party” affiliation. The group’s stated mission is “to challenge the imagination of the rising generation” through “the study of books about the human condition and about civic order.”

“The only connection between the groups is that we disagree philosophically with the Obama administration,” Kookogey tells National Review Online. Reports confirm that the scope of the IRS activity was far broader than initially claimed. “We were singled out for the content of our speech,” he concludes.

After two years of waiting for a decision on his application, Kookogey finally spoke with an IRS agent in the Cincinnati office — his only personal contact with the agency throughout the process — who claimed to be “waiting on guidance from our superiors” in Washington as to how process the application, and those of “other similar organizations.”

Kookogey’s experience also illustrates the extremely invasive nature of the IRS’s campaign against conservative groups, which the Treasury Department’s inspector general described as “inappropriate,” in a report released Tuesday. The agency sent him more than 30 questions in response to his application, including some that defied comprehension. “They asked me to identify the students I’m teaching and what I’m teaching them,” he says. “Now, imagine the disservice I’d be doing to the parents of these kids if I reported their children to the IRS. It was clearly meant to intimidate.”

Other conservative organizations faced similar scrutiny. Almost all of them were asked to reveal the names of all their donors, even though the law does not require them to. One group in Tennessee was asked to list “each past or present board member, officer, key employee and members of their families” [emphasis added] who were planning to run for office or had previously filed for tax-exempt status. Tea Party Patriots, and a number of its affiliate groups around the country, were asked to provide “a print-out of each of your website’s pages.” One affiliate, the Greater Phoenix Tea Party Patriots, was asked to “provide a list of all issues that are important to your organization” and to “indicate your position regarding each issue.” After more than three years, the Phoenix group is still awaiting a decision on its application.

Kelly Townsend, the Greater Phoenix Tea Party Patriots’ co-founder, says that in her years of experience helping groups apply for nonprofit status, she had “never been asked for such extensive information.” Not only that, but the typical six-month waiting period was drawn out to more than two years, which has seriously hampered the group’s ability to fundraise.

The national Tea Party Patriots’ co-founder Jenny Beth Martin has heard from a number of groups that simply abandoned their applications altogether after receiving the IRS questionnaire. “The IRS is intimidating,” she says, “and when they start prying into every detail that they don’t have a right to know, it’s a complete abuse of power.”

Townsend says she felt “validated” now that the scandal was being widely acknowledged, and hopes the appropriate uproar can serve as a “unifying event” for the country. “We really need to be able to trust the IRS, no matter what side you’re on,” she says. “Who’s to say that if Republicans regain the White House, it won’t reverse? This is unacceptable.”

Kookogey says he is “happy to see this come to the surface finally,” but is disappointed that lawmakers did not take action sooner, when concerns were first raised. “Congress is supposed to hold the executive in check,” he says. “They should have been doing their job a year ago. Perhaps we’d have a different president if they had.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.